Blue Pyrenees – Victoria’s French corner

Were it not for the Second World War, one of Victoria’s largest vineyards might not exist. French-owned Blue Pyrenees Estate (formerly Chateau Remy) was born in the 1960s out of an alliance between Remy Martin Cognac and Victorian Wine Merchants Nathan and Wyeth.

Remy Martin’s Australian agents, Nathan and Wyeth, kept the brand alive during world war two by substituting Australian brandy for French. At the end of the war, the Australians forwarded a substantial royalty cheque to a surprised Remy Martin.

The relationship between the companies blossomed. Cognac shipments resumed and sales of an Australian brandy under the Remy label continued. In the late 1950s Nathan and Wyeth suggested that it might be fruitful to manufacture brandy in Australia rather than buying it from distillers.

Andre Heriard-Dubreuil, President of Remy Martin, agreed and, according to David Dunstan in his excellent “Wines and Winemakers of the Pyrenees”(Pyrenees Vineyards Association), both sides agreed that the vineyard “should not be in one of the Riverland districts where the bulk of Australian brandy was produced but rather some place cooler, somewhere with a climate more like that of Cognac”.

Subsequently, a property was acquired near Avoca, central Victoria, and in 1963 forest clearing and planting of doradillo and trebbiano grapes commenced.

But the writing hand moves on, and, over time, emphasis shifted away from brandy, to sparkling wine and then to table-wine production. Finally, under Frenchman Vincent Gere, a major overhaul of the entire operation commenced, by now under full French ownership.

Gere says, “All of our staff have wine making, viticultural and agronomy backgrounds” and that “the whole set-up is a unit to produce top grapes and from them, top wines”.

Under Gere, lesser grape varieties have been grafted to premiums and the estate, now planted to 153 hectares, will be expanded by 1997 to 207 hectares, yielding some 1600 tonnes of premium grapes — about triple that of the entire Canberra District.

In Australia, that’s a big single estate. Yet the yield of around 7.5 tonnes of grapes per hectare is low. France’s Champagne region, producing some of the most expensive wines in the world, permits yields of 12.5 tonnes a hectare, according to Gere. Even in productive Coonawarra, red-grape yields need to be held to around 10 tonnes a hectare to make full-bodied wines.

Blue Pyrenees Estate’s low grape yields are not accidental. Gere says that each of 70 blocks on the estate is managed individually to produce a set quality — and time has shown that higher yields see a sharp drop off in quality.

It’s logical then, that if you’ve got 7 million dollars tied up in the vineyard, as much again in plant and stock, plus big running costs, the wines have to be good enough to fetch a premium price.

This is familiar territory to the French. They’ve never been shy to demand top dollar for luxury items. For them, the best wines and spirits have always been an extension of the fashion industry. And so it is that Dom Perignon, Bollinger, and Remy Martin Cognac, to name only a few, fetch the big bucks and are as important prestige badges as BMW and Rolls Royce.

But top quality underpins all the hype. The French understand that and have been outstandingly successful — more successful than Australia to date — in adding value to what could be just a horticultural product.

At Blue Pyrenees Estate, the quality emphasis flows from the vineyard to the winery with impeccable care taken at every step to bring out the best in the grapes. The best equipment has been installed. Highly qualified staff are on hand. And Vincent Gere gleans every insight he can from Remy’s far-flung wine empire, taking in not just Cognac but Champagne Houses Krug and Charles Heidseick as well.

I must admit past disappointment in the reds, whites and sparkling wines of the Estate. But the lift in quality under Gere has been astounding. Blue Pyrenees Chardonnay 1995 shows the benefits of wine making discipline: low yields from old, established vines; good wine making; and the use of top-notch oak barrels produce spectacular concentration of flavour

The 1994 and 1995 Blue Pyrenees red show similar class. A reduction of the shiraz component and an increase in the Bordeaux varieties, puts them streets ahead of anything that went before.

And the sparkling wines, Blue Pyrenees Reserve NV, Reserve Vintage and Midnight Cuvee have a delicious, fruity kernel making them real contenders on the top shelf.

Where these wines sit in the Australian hierarchy, it’s too early to say. Now that the vineyard and wine making are in order, we’ll need to see another decade of vintages to see just how good this rather lovely Victorian vineyard is, but I suspect it will become one of our great icons.